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The Limits of Independence

I’d like to describe this as a buried news story, but that would imply that it even reached the news. The European Central Bank (ECB) issued a statement last Tuesday “urging” the Polish government to further revise the law regulating the relationship between the Polish National Bank (Narodowy Bank Polski, NBP) and the Polish government. The issue here is the “independence” that each national bank in the EU is supposed to enjoy: the ECB statute prohibits member institutions from “seeking or taking instructions” from any national government. Polish law, meanwhile, states that the national bank must forward its draft policy assumptions to the government.

I fear that I may have lost most of you with that less-than-exciting lead paragraph. But don’t go yet!

The 7-page statement from the ECB is a highly technical document, and most of it deals with various administrative and procedural inconsistencies between the ECB statute and a proposed reform of the laws regulating the NBP. It makes for great bedside reading, assuming that your goal is to doze off as quickly as possible.

But this sort of stuff deserves more attention. It has become commonplace to observe that the most fundamental challenge facing Europe today is the “democracy gap,” the sense that the decisions that really matter have been taken entire out of the political process and that unaccountable bureaucrats have an outsized influence. This is grist for the populist mill, and it’s way too easy to twist this complaint in a direction that feeds the paranoid nationalist groups that now exist in every EU country. Yet there really is a problem here, and it is captured in this idea that central bank “independence” is a sacred principle.

I know the arguments: if central bankers made their decisions—particularly those regarding the money supply and interest rates—according to the whims of public opinion, it would encourage reckless policies that would result in inflation. Poles in particular can remember the hyperinflation of the late 20th century, and no one wants to return to those days. Safeguards need to be in place to reduce the likelihood of such events, but by using the word “independence” we make it seem like a moral principle or a political ideal. Who can be against independence—particularly in Poland?

What if we used the word “accountability” instead? Because that’s what we are really talking about here. By fetishizing “independence” the EU has reached the position it is in today, where a network of central bankers and other financial experts continue to impose a doctrine of fiscal austerity on a continent that is struggling to ward off deflation, not inflation, even as public support for these policies falls to the vanishing point. Even many professional economists (well, at least Paul Krugman, but he’s important enough to be called “many”) are baffled and frustrated by the obstinacy with which Europe has been driving itself off a cliff these past few years.

Economists routinely try to wall themselves off from politics, as if their discipline should be the firmly in the realm of “rationality,” isolated from the vagaries of emotions, interests, and desires that are channeled through political life. Modern economic thought relies heavily on the notion of a rational actor, and since such beings don’t exist in the real world, the next best thing is to cordon economic decision-making into a realm where “irrationality” is forbidden. We then don’t have to worry, for example, about the “irrationality” of those who get upset when millions of young people are doomed to long-term unemployment, or the “irrationality” of those who argue that deflation or poverty might sometimes be a greater danger than inflation or budget deficits. Economists don’t need to concern themselves with the ignorant whining of those of us who can’t grasp their subtle mathematical gymnastics.

The fact that Poland has not adopted the Euro has permitted a little bit more leeway in fiscal policymaking—not much, but at least enough to allow the country to avoid the austerity trap that has ensnared the rest of the continent. I’m not suggesting that the continued existence of the złoty is the only (or even necessarily the primary) reason for Poland’s expanding economy, but it is undeniably one of the factors. Even if I’m wrong about that, my general point stands: although it is necessary to build some walls between short-term political demands and long-term economic policymaking, it is deeply misguided to suggest that these barriers must be defended absolutely, as a matter of principle.

There may well be factors I haven’t considered regarding this specific issue, but it seems to me entirely reasonable to inform the government about the forecasts and assumptions being used by central bankers in their rate-setting deliberations. Either way, this is an example of how Europeans have allowed the parallel rhetorical pairings of economics/politics and rationality/irrationality to set the foundation for absolutist claims about the inviolable status of central bank decision-making. Have we not yet learned where this sort of thinking can lead us?

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The Antipathy Index

There are many ways to measure the transformations in Polish society over the past 25 years, but one of my favorite is a survey that has been carried out since 1993 in which Poles are asked about their “sympathy” (sympatia) or “aversion” (niechęć) towards various ethnic and national groups. Obviously a study like this can’t be read superficially because it relies on honest introspection and a deep self-awareness of one’s own prejudices. But it does measure what people want to believe about themselves, and how they want to present themselves to others—and that alone is significant. The first year of this survey was disheartening, because it (perhaps ironically) reinforced common West European and American stereotypes about the supposedly xenophobic Poles. A majority of Poles in 1993 expressed hostility towards Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, and Jews (in descending order). They weren’t particularly fond of Belarusians or Lithuanians either. Only the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians (among Poland’s neighbors) could find much love along the Vistula.  Nearly 2/3 of those surveyed liked the Americans, Italians, and French.  The British were only liked by 47%, though very few actually disliked them.  Jumping ahead to 2015, the change is nothing short of amazing. Today only the Roma evoke “aversion” among a majority of Poles, and that figure has declined considerably.  We Americans have lost our popularity, and now a mere 44% like us.  Today Poles are less than half as likely to dislike Germans as they were a quarter century ago, and while the attitudes towards the Russian were showing a similar trend, Putin seems to have reversed that over the past four years.  Far fewer Poles are willing to openly express distaste for Ukrainians and Jews as well—in fact, often in recent years these two groups have had more fans than foes.

Even more interesting than the specific changes, I think, is the general decline in the number of people willing to express aversion towards anyone.  Averaging all the negative ratings for all the various national groups gives us a sort of “antipathy index” that shows an uneven but undeniable decline.

I think that the main thing we learn from studying this data is that we should avoid making any generalizations about “collective hatreds” or “ingrained prejudices”—not just in Poland, but everywhere. The way different groups are imagined, and the ensuing sentiments towards them, can change with surprising rapidity. Many factors contribute towards causing such changes, but the main point is that they do change.  And in Poland over the past 25 years, those changes have been for the better.



Attitudes_towards_Russians Attitudes_towards_Germans

Attitudes_towards_Roma Attitudes_towards_Ukrainians Attitudes_towards_JewsAttitudes_towards_AmericansSource for the data: Małgorzata Omyła-Rudzka, „Stosunek do innych narodów,” Komunikat z badań CBOS 14 (styczeń  2014).  The full report is available for download at


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The Concentration of Polish History PhDs

Last week Slate Magazine published this article by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset entitled “The Academy’s Dirty Secret.” For those of us in the profession, the revelation wasn’t much of a secret: a small cluster of universities produce most of the PhDs held by those with tenure-track positions in North American universities. The article was based on a study of nearly 19,000 faculty members at 461 universities in the disciplines of computer science, business, and history (the complete data are available here). It distressed me, but didn’t surprise me, to see that a mere eight institutions produce half of all the history professors in this country.

I wondered if this pattern held true for the subfield of Polish history, but since many Polonists are officially listed as professors of “European history” or at best “East-Central European history,” it is hard to arrive at precise figures here. We can, however, see where Polish historians get their PhDs (thanks to the American Historical Association’s database of dissertations), even if it would be difficult to figure out how many of these obtained tenure-track jobs. The resulting picture confirms the aforementioned concentration: a mere 8 schools have produced 51% of all the Polish history doctorates over the past 25 years, and 42% of those written since 1910 (when the AHA’s database begins).

But perhaps we should not be distressed by these statistics after all. When looked at from the opposite direction, one could emphasize that nearly half of all those who studied Poland’s past at the doctoral level over the past 25 years did so at a diverse array of 40 different schools. That would certainly mitigate any tendency to homogenize the field. Moreover, a case could be made that a certain level of concentration is good because it allows students with similar interests to work together and learn from each other. Finally, I was pleased to see that half of the “big eight” from the past quarter century are public universities, and obviously I was happy to learn which school came in at #1. (I didn’t expect this when I began my review of these figures, so this post wasn’t supposed to be an advertisement—honestly! )


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How Big is Poland?

Russia is bigger than Poland.


You’ve probably noticed that already, haven’t you?

But the comparison between the two countries changes depending on what we are measuring.  For example, if we measured population, the relationship would look like this:


Or if we used Gross Domestic Income, the proportions would change to this:


A measure of Total Household Consumption would turn the relationship upside down:


Now let’s bring this back home with a comparison of the number of American university students in 2013 who studied Russian, compared to the number studying Polish:


There’s something wrong with this picture. Unless someone wants to argue that we should measure the relative importance of various languages in terms of the land mass on which they are spoken, then Polish is way under-enrolled. I don’t doubt that more students should study Russian, given that country’s strategic importance and rich literary tradition. But at a time when our students and our administrators are so concerned with monetizing the academy, it seems to me that there are some serious market imperfections here. The household consumption figures are particularly striking, because they give us an indication of what would happen if we factored out Russia’s oil and natural gas wealth, which is almost entirely held by a tiny sliver of the country’s population. Russia’s Gini coefficient (a common measure of inequality) is near the top of the world’s rankings at 40.1, while Poland is just a bit higher than its West European neighbors at 34.1 (falling to 30.5 if we account for taxes and transfers—a figure on par with countries like Germany or Switzerland). That explains why Poland’s household consumption level is larger than Russia’s, despite the country’s smaller size. So for a business-minded student body, the appeal of Poland should be clear. We humanists are uncomfortable with this sort of reasoning, and I’ll be the first to admit that it seems somewhat vulgar to advocate language learning by making raw appeals to economic practicality. But we now live in a world in which we must fight for resources from university administrators and compete for enrollments among students, so we need every argument we can get. Poland’s economic position will probably improve even more over the coming decades, while Russia will face enormous problems because of its overreliance on extractive industries. If this prediction is correct, then we have a compelling reason to adjust the imbalances within the Slavic Departments at American universities.

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Polish Language Enrollments

After I posted information about increasing enrollments in Polish history courses, I was contacted by Professor Halina Filipowicz of the University of Wisconsin, who pointed out that the story isn’t quite so cheerful when it comes to language courses.  It sure isn’t: since  2006 the number of students studying Polish at American universities has fallen from 1,381 to 871.  Of course, fewer students are studying foreign languages overall, but that drop is not nearly as sharp.  I would point out, however, that the current dip still leaves us above the level we were at in the 1990s.  As you can see in the chart below, Polish enjoyed a peak in the late 1970s and another in the early 2000s, followed each time by declines.  To put this in some perspective, I’ve added the figures for Czech and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.  There’s no doubt that the declining numbers studying Slavic languages is something we should worry about.

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Polish Optimism

Every December since 1991, the Polish survey firm CBOS (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej) has been asking Poles whether they expected the coming year to be better or worse for themselves, their family, their workplace, their country, and the world. These results are fascinating to track, because they frequently reveal a curious gap between what people anticipate for themselves and for their country. In the charts below I have marked the difference between the number of people who predicting a better year to come and those expecting things to get worse. With only two brief exceptions, Poles have been more optimistic about their personal prospects than about Poland’s overall future. The most recent numbers show a sense of optimism on both accounts, but the gap remains. The anomalous spike in collective confidence in 2007 (predicting 2008) probably relates to the elections held in October of that year, a record-high turnout brought an end to the two-year government of the far-right party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, or Law and Justice). As the world plunged into the Great Recession the following year, forecasts for the country’s future plummeted even as individual optimism remained reasonably high. In December of 2011 (another election year), when people were asked for their predictions for 2012, a sense of general gloom seemed to have set in. The contrasting reactions to the elections of 2007 and 2011 is quite noteworthy, particularly considering that the results were very similar, with the centrist, vaguely liberal party Platforma Obywatelska (PO, or Civic Platform) winning on both occasions. Given that all the macroeconomic indicators continued their gradual climb upward throughout these years, these changes in the level of optimism would seem to relate more to shifts in public rhetoric. The 2011 campaign was extraordinarily negative: PiS attempted to counteract the positive economic trends with a picture of impending doom, and PO tried to frighten the electorate with the prospect of a return to the chaotic years when PiS held power. We get a clearer view of what has been going on here by comparing the predictions people have made for each year with the assessment they offered once that year was over. Since 2005, despite all the political ebbs and flows, assessments of one’s personal fate during the previous year have remained relatively steady.  At the moment, 56% of Poles consider 2014 to have been a good year, compared to only 12% who thought the year went badly (34% had no strong feelings either way).  This range of assessments has held within a narrow band for the past decade.  Meanwhile, predictions of future wellbeing spiked and collapsed, and remain gloomy today. Stepping back from the ups and downs, what strikes me most about these surveys is the degree of overall personal satisfaction they reflect, and the disconnect between measuring one’s own life and the life of the nation.  Since 1994, more Poles have assessed their personal fortunes in a positive light than in a negative light—and rarely has the gap even been close.  Evaluations of the nation’s fate, in contrast, jump up and down with little regard for what is happening in one’s personal life.

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Polish Studies in the 21st Century

To launch this new blog, I want to share some good news: Polish Studies is thriving in North America!  It doesn’t come naturally to us Polonists to be optimistic, particularly against the overall backdrop of the challenges faced by the humanities and social studies in US academic life. But interest in Poland here in the US seems by any measure to be growing. American doctoral dissertations in this field rose from 28 in the 1980s to 50 in the 2000s. So far this decade 28 dissertations in Polish history have been successfully defended, which puts us on pace to produce a record number by 2020. Even if we stopped admitting all Polish history graduate students now, there are still at least 17 in the pipeline.[1] The number of scholarly articles on Polish topics in major North American journals has also been increasing, and the biennial article prize of the Polish Studies Association had a record 55 eligible nominations during its last competition in 2013. The PSA itself has grown exponentially, tripling in size over the last decade.[2] H-Poland, our field’s international and interdisciplinary online forum, now has nearly 500 subscribers, after fewer than five years of existence. And recently that service has been joined by an exciting new European counterpart called Pol-Int.[3] Although my own experiences at the University of Michigan may not be representative of any larger trends, I have seen a striking growth in undergraduate enrollment in my modern Polish history class (48 in 2011, 72 in 2012, 87 in 2014, and 93 this semester). While I would be delighted to attribute this to my effective teaching, that conclusion is undermined by the fact that all my other classes have been shrinking. Academic jobs in Polish studies remain scarce—though no worse than in any other field. And even that dismal topic gets a little bit of sunshine by the addition over the past decade of newly-endowed chairs in Polish history at several major universities.

With all this in mind, it seems like a perfect time to launch this new blog as a way to highlight some of the exciting developments in this field.  I’ll also be commenting on events and trends in Poland itself, offering my perspective as an American who has been studying the country for nearly three decades. Welcome, and come back soon!


[1] Based on data from the Directory of History Dissertations from the American Historical Association, (accessed January 31, 2015).

[2] For more on the PSA, go to

[3] H-Poland is at, and Pol-Int is at